It is not easy being Neeraj Chopra. Do the things he does. Win consecutive medals at the world stage and yet feel the same hunger when he gets ready for the next competition. To be the polestar can’t be easy and yet he has conducted himself with utmost maturity and presided over a revolution of sorts winning medals at every event he has participated in.
Here’s an attempt to understand Neeraj on his birthday.
What works for Neeraj or has worked so far this season? How does he keep himself rooted despite all the adulation around him? How is he dealing with the mantle of India’s new sporting superstar? How important was it for him to prove that Tokyo wasn’t an aberration and he belongs at this level of elite competitors globally?
“Main koi bhi competition mein Olympic Champion ban ke nahi khelta hoon. I always play as Neeraj, just another athlete. Never do I approach a competition thinking I am Neeraj, Olympic gold medallist. All I do is give my 100 percent and prepare the best I can”, said Chopra when asked how he has readied himself mentally. “Pressure to hai. Rahega bhi. But what is important is the sport is now attracting attention in India. People are following every single competition. They are getting to know more about Javelin and as a result more and more people will now play the sport”, says Neeraj.
2022, it can be argued, was considerably more difficult for him in comparison to 2021. In Tokyo he was a contender. More for a medal than the gold. India would have been happy if he made the podium and few would have hoped for the gold. Post Tokyo, things were dramatically different. On the one hand people couldn’t have enough of him and wanted to feed him all kinds of things and on the other they wanted him to win every event he played in. He was the boy next door and the elite athlete all moulded in one. He had to inaugurate every conclave and every gala and yet couldn’t miss training for then there could be criticism that success had gone into his head. He had it all and yet was being challenged every single day for more. India couldn’t have enough of Neeraj and yet did not know how to let him be and train in peace. For a 24 year old, it couldn’t have been easy. All of us in the media wanted our exclusives and yet wanted to see him train with single minded focus. To carve out a balance was his biggest challenge and that’s where Neeraj has stood out. He fulfilled the obligations of being Neeraj for weeks and months and then managed to switch off completely. While we did see the occasional post on social media, his team, which is so very critical to success in elite sport, made sure he could just focus on training with singular focus. To shed close to 14 kilos wasn’t easy and yet he did so in months. Stronger and fitter, it was a more mature Neeraj in 2022. And this maturity, it can be argued, was key to his success. It was Neeraj 2.0 ready for battle.
Abhinav Bindra has often spoken about how difficult it was to deal with the post Beijing euphoria. He had it all at 26 and there was nothing left for him to strive for, he argued. For Neeraj, however, depression was never an issue. “If you see Usain Bolt or Carl Lewis or athletes in their league you will see it is all about repeat success. You can’t be satisfied with one Olympic gold medal. If you can win in Paris and then may be in Los Angeles then you can call yourself a great and that’s what drives me. I want to do more for my country and will not rest easy”, he said to me during one of our many interactions. And in saying so he has stayed humble. And rooted. Taken the right calls. Missing the CWG wasn’t easy and yet he decided to do so keeping the larger well being in mind. A CWG medal would have fetched him a few more crores but money wasn’t an issue for him anymore.
Yes he hasn’t thrown 90 meters yet. It has become an obsession of sorts with him by his own admission. But that’s not bad going into 2023. He knows he isn’t there yet despite winning all that there is to win. He stills wants a World Championship gold and may be another in Paris 2024. And with Neeraj, one thing is certain. There will never be any dearth of effort. Be it in dealing with the global media or in getting ready for competition, he will always prepare the best to give himself the best chance. India finally has an elite athlete who is well and truly a role model. By his own admission, however, he isn’t anything more than Neeraj Chopra, an athlete, who loves to compete and enjoys doing so. Success hasn’t changed him and that perhaps is the most important reason behind yet another breakthrough season.
Here’s wishing him a very happy and healthy birthday on behalf of the RevSportz family.